10 familiar abbreviations that many marketers can’t define

Acronyms and initialisms abound in the industry, yet their long-form meanings are lost on new and old practitioners alike. Here’s a guide to deciphering the alphabet soup.

The marketing industry loves acronyms and abbreviations.

For better or worse (often worse), we marketers will try to shorten just about any common phrase to save even a single syllable.

Over-acronyming (totally a word) can cause confusion when the same acronyms (or initialisms) come to mean several things or are incorrectly applied. There’s another danger: Acronyms that are so commonly used that we either forget or never knew what they actually stand for.

Sure, we might know enough about their usage to get by in conversation, but not knowing the underlying components of an acronym can dilute your understanding of a concept. Worse, it can leave you open to embarrassment should you fail to recognize the complete phrase.

Below are acronyms and initialisms that, on more than one occasion, I’ve found to be incompletely understood by the people throwing them around. A simple understanding of the words behind the abbreviation would have gone a long way in our conversations.


Wrong: Cuddly Antelope Necks, Suspiciously Positioned Against Morlocks
Right: Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing

Let’s start with one that everyone is forgiven for perhaps not knowing. CAN-SPAM, as in The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, changed email marketing forever with its restrictions on when, how and to whom companies send email. Although most marketers at some point have wondered aloud whether their tactics are “CAN-SPAM compliant,” few recall the massive acronym behind what is now generally regarded as an annoying yet necessary set of restrictions.

It’s worth remembering: More than a decade ago, “pornography” and “marketing” were legislatively lumped together as pervasive societal evils.


Wrong: Consistently Purple Microwave
Right: Cost Per Mille (thousand)

This one makes it onto a lot of lists of confusing abbreviations, and rightfully so. Mille? What is a mille? Well, Latin strikes again. Mille means a thousand, and many marketers know that CPM is the cost per thousand, even if they don’t know or care what a mille is.


Wrong: Handy Tapeworm Martyr Laments and eXamines My Life
Right: HyperText Markup Language and eXtensible Markup Language

Marketers needn’t understand the nuance behind every Internet or software acronym, but when it comes to HTML and XML, it’s worth having a basic understanding, especially if you ever talk to developers.

Yes, HTML and XML are both markup languages, but they’re quite different from one another. When you think HTML, think visual. It’s a way to tag information so it displays in a certain way. BY contrast, XML codes information in a way that’s meant to be read by both humans and machines. It indicates what a piece of information is, rather than just how it should look. XML makes RSS feeds possible-which leads to our next section.


Wrong: Ridiculously Slow Spaceship
Right: Rich Site Summary, originally RDF Site Summary, and, now, Really Simple Syndication

Yep, this is another one we get a pass on. Three possibilities, with one that includes its own acronym (RDF being “resource description framework”)? Sheesh. It’s no surprise that the one we use most now is “really simple syndication,” as that seems to mean something based in reality, whereas the other two are more technical descriptions.

In short, RSS feeds enable publishers to easily syndicate content. Use of a standard XML file format enables wide compatibility so readers (listeners, etc.) can get updates in their software (or app) of choice, without manually checking sites.


Wrong: Frail Penguin Operation
Right: For Position Only

Even if you didn’t know that FPO represented “for position only,” you might have known that the acronym serves as a placeholder. These three letters are commonly seen when working with designers, either when an image or block of text is still missing or not in its final form.

It seems straightforward, I know, but the danger comes in when people start throwing “FPO” around as though it’s the same as “TBD” (i.e., to be determined). Sometimes it works: “That blank image there is still FPO/TBD,” but sometimes it doesn’t.

I once had a colleague who started indicating campaign elements such as run dates and target audiences as being “FPO.” Nope. He meant TBD. Not interchangeable, dude.


Wrong: Kitten Paw Infection (awww)
Right: Key Performance Indicator

Some people hear “KPI” and think “goal,” and that can cause problems. “Are we hitting our KPIs?” That’s not really what you mean to ask, and that’s when understanding that KPI stands for “key performance indicator” is valuable. A KPI is a metric, not an end result. Establish KPIs, and then set goals alongside those KPIs.


Wrong: Always Plan Indecency
Right: Application Programming Interface

An API is a set of protocols for building software applications. For example, the Graph API from Facebook is the primary way for apps of all kinds to read and write to the Facebook social graph.

APIs are building blocks for programmers, with varied manifestations and uses, and marketers don’t necessarily have to understand much more than that from a technical standpoint. What you should understand is that APIs are neither lofty concepts to be feared, nor technicalities to be ignored. If you work with developers in any capacity, you’ll hear plenty about API calls, and you might not understand much of it. So don’t throw around the term “API” loosely and without understanding. If in doubt, ask a lot of questions.


Wrong: Clumsy Mouse Spatula
Right: Content Management System

I’ve seen some folks use CMS to mean “customer (or client) management system,” instead of a CRM (customer relationship management) system. So, knock that off; you’re confusing people.

These days, a CMS is a content management system, a fancy term for the interface you use to update or publish information on websites (or elsewhere). It’s not white magic or witchcraft. In most cases, it’s a lot less technical than you might think. If it’s easier for you, just think “WordPress,” but understand that there are a lot of CMS alternatives to WordPress.


Wrong: Itchy Anus Burn
Right: Interactive Advertising Bureau

The IAB—the nonprofit organization that develops standards and provides support for the online advertising industry—is almost always called “the IAB,” so some might fail to recall that there’s anything more to the name than that. On the rare occasion you hear someone actually call it the Interactive Advertising Bureau, please make the connection. If you can’t fathom the need for this clarification, I’m glad, but experience dictates its inclusion here.

What would you add to the list? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Drew Hubbard is a social media and content marketing specialist. A version of this article originally appeared on iMediaConnection.

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